Last week we saw a strong and often adverse reaction from the SEO community with regards to a video published by Google themselves on 26th February. The video was titled “Tips for hiring an SEO specialist”. It all centres around their 3rd tip: to get a free technical audit before making your decision and was highlighted by Danny Sullivan on Twitter.
Our initial reaction was somewhat similar to others. Full audits take a considerable amount of time and as such, any free audit is likely to be automated and of no real value. Then we started investigating and some interesting points came out of it, including how we had also ignored the fact that Google had not explicitly said ‘free’.
On one hand this is somewhat clumsy from Google. Good intent, but clumsy.
On the other hand, it is an example of the Mandela effect and the SEO community’s predisposition to throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Let’s have a look.
Google’s Advice is as follows:
Step 1: Conduct an interview
Step 2: Ask for references
Step 3: Ask for a technical and search audit
The majority of the content in this video is actually pretty good, even step 3. Here’s a transcript of what it actually says:
“Step 3 is to request a technical and search audit. If you trust your SEO candidate, give them restricted view, not full or write access to your Google Search Console data or Analytics data. Before they actually modify anything on your website, have them conduct a technical and search audit to give you a prioritized list of what they think should be improved for SEO. In the audit, the SEO expert should prioritize issues and suggested improvements. These suggestions should be based on data about your site, should apply well to your online presence, and should and should avoid unnatural practices that may go against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. The suggestions you should look for will ideally focus on techniques and strategies that target a human audience, as opposed to a search engine. The audit also should estimate the overall investment and the positive business impacts.”
On the face of it, this is good advice. Companies should be looking to work with SEO specialists that use data, apply White Hat techniques, target real users and can provide an actionable and measurable strategy for success. Furthermore, at least an overview of this information should be accessed before signing a contract.
The problem lies in the lack of clarity around the extent of the audit and the potential mismanagement of expectations.
What is a technical and search audit?
We do have to bear in mind that this is a relatively short video so Google are working with limited airtime or real estate here, more on this later.
The SEO world is full of different working practices and honestly, vastly different outputs. As such, a technical and search audit is not homogenous throughout the industry. In fact, both edges of the metaphorical scale result in legitimate contention with Google’s advice. On one side you have an automated audit (or report) which is pumped out by an online tool. On the other side you have in depth auditing of a site by an expert, utilising their experience and requiring a heavy investment of time. Here’s why both can be used as ammo against Google’s suggestion:
First of all, this is a reaction that is taken out of context. An automated report would not deliver on many of the objectives Google mention for the audit including an estimate of overall investment and business impact. Regardless, this is a reaction that has come out of this story.
Most SEO tools allow you to run audits or reports on a website. We use SEMRush internally which crawls a website and creates a list of errors that it can identify on a site. These errors and warnings are even pseudo prioritised for you.
The issue here is that these audits, whilst useful, are of limited value. They are also very easily accessible, producing a number of problems:
- Anyone can produce one of these ‘audits’. It therefore has very little reflection on how well a specialist is placed to deliver a successful campaign or project.
- Simply pointing out issues, whether that be automated or not, is again not a reflection on an ability to rectify them and improve a website’s search visibility.
- Automated audits come with very little context. They tend not to take into account critical website data and as such their effectiveness is considerably limited.
- As mentioned, they do not offer any strategy. Instead they produce something more akin to a paint by numbers campaign.
Remember that this will differ between specialists but from our agency experience, an audit is far more than a paint by numbers report. An SEO audit will take into account a swathe of items, including those mentioned in Google’s video.
These audits can often represent the first portion of a fully managed SEO campaign and involves a considerable amount of work. From what we can see in terms of reaction to this video, this is the biggest sticking point. There is outrage that Google is recommending that people request this type of work prior to actually signing a contract. What if they choose a different option? More on this very very shortly.
We believe that Google’s use of ‘audit’ is somewhat clumsy. What they are actually advising is that the SEO specialist provides a detailed proposal, which should be based upon data and an outlined strategy. This is the danger of making a video that provides more than a simple overview without exploring or explaining individual points in detail.
The word ‘audit’ is what has seemingly sparked the adverse reaction. If Google had said something along the lines of “request a proposal that outlines the intended strategy, based on data from your analytics and a prioritised list of actions”, you wouldn’t be hearing so many people object.
The Mandela Effect
Even though this theory is 10 years old, it seems as though it has really burst on to the public’s consciousness within the last 12 months. This probably doesn’t actually qualify for ‘collective false memory’ as it isn’t that old and is more of just an assumption! Either way, a lot of the SEO community seemed to have got this wrong. We also fell victim to this initially.
At no point does Google explicitly say that the audit should be free. In fact, in two other cases they explicitly say that you will probably have to pay for the audit. There is therefore fault on both sides. For the outraged SEOs, assumption is the mother of all f*ck ups. For Google, the lack of consistency and use of terminology is incredibly misleading.
So the audit isn’t free?
This video isn’t actually the first of its kind. In fact, it’s more of an illustrative replacement for the one below. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a number of sentences that were simply repeated in the new one:
Furthermore, the video is featured on their ‘Need an SEO’ page but just happens to be hosted by Youtube. It makes sense that it would sit on Youtube given that Google own it.
Anyway, in both the original video, and the ‘Need an SEO’ page Google state that:
“You’ll probably have to pay for this”
By my maths, Google has said that the business should expect to have to pay for an audit two thirds of the time. I’m not sticking up for Google here, in fact, it further shows how avoidable all this could have been. It’s lazy and inconsistent, especially considering how influential Youtube (and video) is as a platform. Whilst we don’t have access to the analytics figures for this page, we wouldn’t be surprised if video views far outstripped people reading Google’s advice.
It also doesn’t excuse the call to arms from the SEO community without digging at least a little bit under the surface. For other examples of overreactions, have a read of the article I wrote for Search Engine Watch.
Don’t Mislead Beginners!
This video is aimed at those with perhaps limited SEO knowledge and experience. After all, the article/video is labelled for ‘Beginning Users’. It could be argued that the SEO community is concerned with Google providing incorrect or misleading advice to beginners and therefore those most likely to follow advice word for word. Due to the lack of clarity, SEOs may find themselves being asked for free audits.
This is the root of the problem, it’s always interesting to see the advice that Google disseminates with regards to working with the SEO industry. When that advice is misleading, there is natural uproar.
Good advice & an easily avoidable argument
It’s a shame that the video isn’t consistent with the previous video and also the page on which it is featured. The advice is solid. Businesses should not be engaging with specialists without these points covered off, whether that be consultants or agencies. The SEO specialist should be providing at least an outlined plan, costs and potential ROI.
The arguments have highlighted this. One on hand, a proposal that is based on data is critical for the success of a project. On the other, there are limits to what can be achieved for free:
What are your thoughts on the subject? At the time of writing over 21,500 people had viewed the video on Youtube. It certainly has the potential to mislead.
I think we can also move on from the fact that Google were clumsy and use this as a platform to analyse client/specialist relationships. It brings into question a number of items, not least how detailed an SEO proposal should be as well as how an SEO specialists’ time is valued.